IT'S BEEN A bad day for Teresa. There's lots of pressure at work, and this morning she heard that her elderly father has had a mild stroke. To make matters worse, her husband, Steven, didn't turn up to the parent-teacher conference at her son's school. They were supposed to have dinner together tonight to talk things over, but he's just called to say there are problems at the office, and he won't be home until late.
'Sometimes I think I may as well be a single mother, coping with children, work and elderly parents on my own,' Teresa says. 'The sad thing is that I'm used to it. I see more of my neighbours than I do of my husband. I know it's not his fault, but it doesn't stop me feeling frustrated and resentful.'
According to experts, about 85 per cent of the 110 million married people in the US face the same problems as Teresa and her husband. 'The 'weekend marriage' is now the most important and least understood reason why couples end up getting divorced,' says Mira Kirshenbaum, Boston-based couples therapist and author of The Weekend Marriage: Abundant Love in a Time-Starved World.
In the corporatised world of Hong Kong, the weekend marriage is on the rise. 'Many men working in Hong Kong spend a lot of time at the office, not getting home until late, and then spending more time on the computer or on the phone,' says Wong Oi-ling, clinical supervisor of the University of Hong Kong's Family Institute. 'Relationships begin to fall apart because couples don't spend enough time together. We're seeing more and more couples with these sorts of issues.'
Eunice and her lawyer husband, Albert, got married 18 months ago, but so far married life hasn't lived up to her expectations. 'We don't see each other at all during the week, although I call him a lot during the day,' she says. 'The problem is, when we have an argument about the quality of our relationship I feel bad because I'm always saying, 'Did you pay the rent? Did you realise the electricity bill is overdue again?' It's all administration.
'We never sit down and have dinner together and discuss our day, the way my parents always used to. When I found out I was pregnant six months ago it all came to a head, because I was worried about how I'd cope alone.'
The main hurdle for most couples is realising they have a problem, says Wong, and this can become even more difficult when children are involved.
'Too often couples are child-centred; they ignore the need to spare time for themselves as a couple,' she says. 'When a child comes into a family, parents tend to neglect their own needs and this is how conflicts arise.'
Teresa is the first to say her husband is a good father. 'In a lot of ways I'm lucky that Steven is so involved with Henry, but because he spends what little free time he has with our son, there's nothing left for me,' she says. 'I sometimes complain that I'm at the bottom of his list - after his work, his son, his parents and his friends.'
According to Wong, Henry and the many other children in his situation would probably be better off if parents such as Teresa and Steven made more time to be together as a couple. Parents in a secure and loving relationship create a more stable and nurturing environment for their children.
'Parents have to realise that this sort of problem affects children's emotions, too,' she says. 'A lot of couples come to us thinking their child has a behavioural problem, when it's closely related to the couple's own relationship. Fortunately, in 99 per cent of these cases we're dealing with concerned parents. When they realise the discord within their relationship is affecting their children, they work harder to repair the damage.'
The best way to do this is to schedule quality time together, says Wong. 'Every couple is different. The amount of time they spend together depends on their availability. Ideally, couples should aim to spend at least half an hour together every day, but only they can negotiate how much time they can set aside. Even a couple of times a week will do.'
Once couples have set the time aside, they need to work out how best to use it. Wong says they should find an activity or do something they're both interested in. She suggests they go out, leaving childcare to the maid or relatives.
'Leave the house,' she says. 'No telephone, no work calls. Even if you just walk down the street or find a local noodle restaurant to have a quick dinner.'
For Eunice and Albert, things have improved since they put some of those suggestions into practice. 'Albert and I have been so busy at work this year, we weren't spending any time together and neither of us was happy about it,' Eunice says.
'With a baby on the way we realised we needed to sort things out. We're both night owls, so we've started spending time together late at night and we try to have dinner together at least once a week. Last month, we had a weekend away. It was great. All the tension just seemed to disappear. We're planning to do this every six months, once the baby is old enough.'
Flexibility is the key. Couples have to make time to nurture their relationship. 'Couples have to set aside time for one another,' Wong says. 'Realistically, they can do and talk about anything they like, just as long as they're together.'